A Study of the Formation of Zionism from a Historical Perspective

Abstract: A detailed examination of the struggle within the Jewish community during the formation of Zionism and the attempt to reconcile the policies of Zionism with traditional Jewish teachings and values.

The Origins of Zionism

Kolsky (1990) argued that the expulsion of the Jews from Spain immediately after the fall of Granada, the massacre of Jews in Poland, the Russian pogroms, anti-Jewish legislation in 1881 and 1882, the Dreyfus case in France (1894-1906) and, finally the Nazi movement in Europe cumulatively created the chain of events that helped Zionist intellectuals to promote the idea that throughout history, the Jews had been persecuted and faced great danger, and that therefore, they had to find a place where they could be secure. Moreover, Halpern & Reinharz (1988) went further when they wrote that anti-Semitic incidents that took place in the 1870s and 1880s evoked many Jewish intellectuals to think that anti-Semitism was not a result of historical backwardness of the gentiles (in general, the word refers to non-Jews), but in fact, was due to some racial differentiations as the modern secular culture and society also promoted anti-Semitism. They maintained that the main cause of widespread anti-Semitic sentiment was the current homelessness of the Jewish population which put them into a universal minority status and consequently caused all the suffering that the Jews had gone through throughout history. Therefore, so long as this homeless status continued, so would the suffering of the Jewish people. The only way to pave a path to a permanent solution was to build a home for these suffering people. All other options would have seemed superficial and temporary.

However, it should be noted that the creation of the Zionist movement did not take place in the immediate aftermath of these events. The articulated political movement was preceded by a cultural awakening started with the Haskala movement in the early 1820s amongst the European Jewish populations. The Haskala was a secular Jewish movement which began after the emancipation movement in Europe (Rubinstein: 1987). It was launched by the European Jewish intelligentsia who wanted to “modernize” and “make a more productive” Jewish community by moving them into more useful and dignified livelihoods. They also aimed to free the Jewish community from the constricting narrow-minded traditional Jewish education. Furthermore, they believed that their traditional Jewish outlook was one of the reasons for the anti-Semitism they faced (Sachar: 1977).

The Haskala movement mostly focused on a cultural awakening, thus it did not aim for the resettlement in Palestine nor did it have a direct influence on the development of the Zionist movement; instead it intended to prepare the ghetto Jews for civic equality and social acceptance. However, crucially, the Haskala movement served the purpose of nurturing the minds of the Jewish intellectuals who would later become the forefathers of the Zionist movement.

According to Vital (1975), despite the positive achievements of the Haskala movement, it also caused confusion within European Jewry. The Western Jews had mostly adopted the language, culture, and social habits of the non-Jewish European population and were thus faced with the danger of assimilation. Hence, it was very difficult for the Western Jewry to have meaningful cultural or social ties with other Jews who still lived in the ‘pre-Emancipation’ state. They did not have the same language, tradition, or even religious understanding. The Haskala had been launched for the awakening of the European Jewish community; instead it dragged them into a powerful process of assimilation and alienation. Fatally, it did not tackle the problem of the anti-Semitism they faced. Therefore, the Jewish community began to question the wisdom of Haskala and raised some concerns. However, despite the criticisms, the “modernised” Jews did not want to go back to the “primitive state” of the “undeveloped” Jewry. There was a huge gap between European and non-European Jewry. In this vexed atmosphere, Theodor Herzl, who is considered to be the most prominent figure in Zionist history, emerged as a leader who could save European Jewry from their dilemma and ill-fate.

Herzl was born in Budapest as the single son to a well-to-do family and moved to Vienna when he was a child. He had three sets of forenames in three different languages; the Hebrew Binyamin Ze’ev, the Magyar Tivadar and the German Thedor. He went to a Jewish school but in his childhood was not able to speak Hebrew. By the time he reached manhood he still did not possess any meaningful knowledge about Jewish laws, rituals and history (Vital: 1975). Avineri (1981) considers Theodor Herzl to have been a typical product of the Emancipation movement. Despite the fact that he was born in Hungary, his family was a part of the Hungarian Jewish community which strongly attached itself to the German culture and thus predictably Herzl was also strongly influenced by German values. In this extract from his diary he stated that “if there is one thing I should like to be, it is a member of the old Prussian nobility” (Vital: 1975 p.235). This statement was made when Herzl’s essential ideas regarding the Jewish problem took shape.

It is well known that he was deeply affected by the Dreyfus Affair, when a Jewish officer, Alfred Dreyfus, in the French army was falsely convicted of treason in 1894 due to the strong anti-Semitic atmosphere of the time. The story goes that Herzl was in Paris at the time of the crisis and followed the case closely, which showed him the relentlessness nature of the anti-Semitism that European Jews were subjected to, and eventually brought him into the ranks of the Zionist movement. During his Zionist years he had much to offer to the needs of the Zionist Jewry. For Vital (1975), since Herzl himself came from the same background it was easy for him to understand the problems and dilemmas of Western Jewry and offer necessary solutions. In fact, his foremost solution was to offer himself as the leader of Western Jewry who would lead them to their salvation.

Rabinowicz (1952) points out that there is consensus among Jewish historians and the Zionist leadership that Herzl was a good leader and organiser rather than an ideologue. As a matter of fact, in the 1860s it was the other Jewish intellectuals –Perez Smoleskin, David Gordon, Moses Hess – who shaped the idea of a Jewish nation and defended the legitimacy of Jewish nationalism. Herzl tried to implement their ideas and re-establish the Jewish homeland albeit with some flavours that he added in himself.

During his hard work for the Zionist cause, Herzl approached many prominent figures of his time, some of which included the Pope, Emperor Wilhelm II, Sultan Abdulhamit II, the Archduke of Baden, and the British Colonial. He also gathered the First Zionist Congress in 1879 where the foundations of Zionism were laid down (Davis: 1987). Therefore, Avineri (1981) considers Herzl to have been the first person to achieve a breakthrough for Zionism in terms of Jewish and wider public opinion. Until his time, the Zionist ideology was restricted to a marginal group of Jewish intellectuals. However, upon his death in 1904, at the age of 46, the Zionist ideology was gaining enough momentum to become an important figure in the international arena. In the following decade during World War I when the British initiated the Balfour Declaration in 1917, the issue of a Jewish state would become a prevalent case in international politics.

A Jewish Nation: Is it possible?

According to Evron (1995), Zionism as formulated in the late 19th and early 20th century was based on the following tenets:

1. The Jews throughout the world constitute a single nation, and the bond that connects them is essentially national, not religious. The religion is a manifestation of a “national essence” that also has other expressions, such as a common Jewish mentality. Religion had served to found, preserve and continue ethnic affinity, social ties, and a spirit of community. Moreover, it had fashioned the group’s original unity and only in some cases endured its survival (Dieckhoff: 2003).

However, there was confusion amongst the Zionist forefathers with regard to the definition of a “national essence”. According to Evron, Herzl wrote in Der Judenstaat:

“We are nation, one nation. The enemy, by no volition of ours, forces us to be a nation” the Jewish nationhood was voluntarily, but as the result of external pressure, (not primarily) forcing a group that is not necessarily a nation to become one” (1995: p. 42-43.)

Crucially in his book, Herzl failed to define the characteristics of the Jews that made them into a nation.

However, according to Achad Ha’am, another prominent figure in the Zionist movement, the nationhood of the Jewish people essentially did exist. Ha’am who produced a more systematic national thesis considered Jewish people as a biological organism which were motivated by a “will to exist”. He argued that when the Jewish people had been living in Palestine, they had collectively as a nation shaped their own culture and religion which he considered to be “survival devices” that are created by the national genius. Therefore he believed that an atheist could be a good Jew, however, if he was also a nationalist he could be an even better Jew than one who was a devout believer but denies the national essence of Judaism (Evron: 1995).

2. Every “normal” nation has its own national territory, that the Jewish nation does not is abnormal. This abnormality is the cause of anti-Semitism, which is the natural reaction of “normal” nations. As a result of this abnormality and the ensuing anti-Semitism, the Jews suffered throughout history in such tragedies as the Holocaust. Thus, these sufferings brought an exceptional nature to the Jewish people. In addition, throughout the centuries of exile, the founding fathers of Zionism claimed that the Jewish people had never ceased to long for their ancestral land, as expressed in their prayers and their festivals.

As to the concept of exile, according to Jewish history, the Jewish Diaspora began with the exile of Judeans to Babylonia by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC. Under Hellenistic rulers, large numbers of Jews settled in Alexandria, Egypt. During the Greco-Roman period, Jews settled throughout Asia Minor and southern Europe. Many Jewish prisoners of war were brought to Rome after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. From Italy, Jews migrated to France and Germany, and from there to England, Scandinavia, and Eastern Europe. During the reign of Islam, Jews from North Africa moved westward into the Iberian Peninsula. Some of them expelled by Christian rulers in the 15th century, and these Jews, known as Sephardim, resettled in The Netherlands, the Balkans, Turkey, Palestine, and the Americas. In the 19th and 20th centuries, large numbers of central and east European Jews went to North America and, after World War II, to Palestine (Diechkoff: 1993).

3. The formation of modern nations in 19th century Europe such as Germany, France, and Russia were synonymous with the emergence of a bourgeois society, which created an autochthonous middle class that tried to replace the Jews in their middleman roles. Anti-Semitism then became the ideology of the petty and middle-class bourgeoisie and served to mobilise the lower classes which otherwise might have turned against the bourgeoisie to create a common front against the Jew’s classes.

4. As a result of the preceding tenets, the Jewish people must reassemble in a territory of their own, and the most suitable place for it is the ancient homeland which is Palestine. In Palestine the nation was born and its culture shaped; therefore, the right of the Jews to Palestine is proven by their devotion to it, in custom and in ritual, throughout the ages that they had been repeatedly expelled from it by conquerors and oppressors.

As seen above, Zionism strongly emphasised on its ‘exceptional character` and ‘separatism’ in order to support the idea that the Jews could not find security in their state of Diaspora; the only way to find security, being the formation of a separate state. In order to form a separate state, the very foundations of the Jewish nation had to be shaken. The focal point of Jewish destiny until then had been their religion; however, for the founders of Zionism it was the religion itself that formed a strong obstacle to the formation of their “Jewish state”. This was due to the traditional Jewish belief that the exile of the Jews from Palestine was a result of a divine destiny, caused by their own sins. Until the Jews purify their souls and spiritually uplift themselves, this exile period is bound to continue and during this period God strictly forbids them to return to Palestine.

The Zionist forefathers wanted to remove the obstacle of religion from the path of Zionism. According to Dieckhoff (1993) in order to remove this obstacle, the Zionist forefathers produced different interpretations of the classical Jewish texts the Talmud and the Midrash. They argued that the forbidden return to Palestine was the spiritual return; however, God had not forbidden a physical return to Palestine, in fact physical return was interpreted to be a part of purification. This interpretation meant that the Jews could legitimately cooperate and organize themselves to settle in the Holy Land. Therefore, Dieckhoff considers it as an attempt that is motivated by “placing man, not God, at the centre of the Jewish destiny” (Dieckhoff: 1993, p.19).

This unprecedented interpretation of the Jewish classical texts and belief brought harsh criticism of Herzl and other Zionist leaders. In one incident when Rabbi Joseph Hayyim Sonnenfeld, a prominent figure amongst Orthodox Jewry, was invited to join the Zionist movement in 1889 by Herzl, he replied with a letter that ruthlessly criticised Herzl and the Zionist ideology:

With regards to the Zionist what am I to say and what am I to speak? There is a great dismay also in Holy Land that these evil men who deny the Unique One of the world and His Holy Torah have proclaimed with so much publicity that is in their power to hasten redemption for the people of Israel and gather the dispersed from all the ends of earth. They have also asserted their view that the whole difference and distinction between Israel and the nations lies in nationalism, blood, and race, and that the faith and the religion are superfluous… Dr. Herzl comes not from the Lord, but from the side of Pollution… (Taylor: 1972. p. 42).

Moreover, some orthodox Jews like Rabbi Samual, leader of an Orthodox group, went as far as to pray “Blessed is the Lord who struck him down” when Herzl died on July 3, 1904. (Urofsky: 1975, p. 91).

In fact the above mentioned nationalist ideas were not afar from the founders of the Zionism. Coinciding with the formation of Zionism, Europe was undergoing immense upheavals and European states were dissolving religious society, and there was to be established a new kind of political system in which only national entities could survive and achieve their political ambitions (Evron: 1995).

Since the Zionist founders existed in this intellectual paradigm, they must have been influenced by the surrounding ideas. Thus, they put considerable effort into converting a purely religiously-orientated community into a secular nationalistic community. Sachar (1977) points out this fact by referring to some statements made by early advocates of Jewish nationalism, i.e. Moses Hess. According to Sachar, Hess was deeply influenced by the Italian nationalist Mazzini and the unification of Italy. As a result of this influence he wrote a second volume to his renowned book ‘Rome and Jerusalem` in which he encountered with European nationalism.

In his book, Hess (1995) noted the significance of a “national renaissance” that could endow the religious genius of the Jews and draw great emphasis on Italian, Polish and Hungarian national movements.

Having given these examples, Sachar goes further when he argues that the Hungarian and Slovakian nationalist movements deeply affected Perez Smolenskin and Leo Pinsker. These are very important findings considering the fact that some historians (Taylor: 1972) consider the former to be the real founder of the Zionist movement. .

A Constructed Concept?

Many scholars who are critical of national sentiment and Western colonial hegemony argue that the concept of race is an invention of the 19th century and was engineered specifically to create a strong united political base at home (in Europe) and at the same time was used as a pretext to justify the colonial hegemony of the West upon the rest of the world (Amin:1988). For these scholars the West used the pretext that the white man, had been civilised through a continuous process of evolution to justify what they felt was their duty to go and help other peoples; they argued that Non-Western societies who lived a primitive and uncivilised life were in need of continuous supervision from the West so they could be freed from their sad fates. Therefore, Western values and principles were declared to be the ‘norms’ which had to be adopted by the rest of the world. This was one of the main justifications that served to legitimise the colonial conquest of the world by the ‘white man’.

The Zionist forefathers could not ignore the existence of this significant synthetic concept and transformed, in a similar manner to the Europeans, their religious identity into a national one. In fact according to Rubinstein, (1987) the Zionist movement always tried to adapt the Western mindset so as to attach itself to the Western civiliszation which is inherently different from and opposed to the ‘others’.

This new transformation process and quick adaptation of Western values would provide advantages to the Zionist movement in their ambition to establish a Zionist state in Palestine. The Zionists who had by then imbued themselves with Western values propagated the idea that similar to the West, they were a civilised nation whilst the Palestinians remained essentially uncivilised. Hence, the Palestinians needed to be supervised by the Zionists. An example of the Zionist perception of Palestinians can be clearly seen in the writings of Herzl in which he states:

“Supposing His Majesty the Sultan was to give us Palestine, we could in return undertake to regulate the whole finances of Turkey. We should there form a portion of the rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilianisation as opposed to barbarism. We should as a natural state remain in contact with all Europe, which would have guarantee our existence.” (Herzl: 1946, p30).

In addition when Herzl was delivering his speech to the First Zionist Congress he said that:

“It is more and more to the interest of the civilized nations and of civilization in general that a cultural station be established on the shortest road to Asia. Palestine is this station and we Jews are the bearers of culture who are ready to give our property and our lives to bring about its creation.” (Kayyali: 1977, p.105).

Moreover, in the second Zionist Congress, Herzl, the official founder of the Zionist movement, himself openly disclosed this policy when he was trying to get the support of the English government:

“… the English were the first to recognize the necessity of colonial expansion of the modern world … And therefore, I believe the Zionist idea, which is a colonial idea, must be understood in England easily and quickly”. (Dadiani: 1984. p,13).

As a matter of fact, the Zionist forefathers had little trouble in establishing the idea of the superiority of the Jews. The root of the concept of the “chosen people” which was introduced in the Bible was adapted by the Zionist ideology and fitted into the new discourse. Eban (1974) the first Israeli ambassador to the UN and Israeli Foreign minister wrote in his well-known book on this concept of the unique history and chosen people:

“The awareness of the relevance of the Bible to the present day life permeates the school all sections in Israel and moulds their thoughts and expression… The Bible represents the history and the thought of the biblical period with which modern Israel feels a close affinity.” (Haddad: 1974. p.99).

Following up from Eban’s statement, Haddad argues that though Jewish nationalism was formed in the nineteenth and twentieth century it remains that the Zionist forefathers heavily used the above mentioned Biblical teaching and applied it to their own “policy of land seizure, its treatment of the Palestinians, its policy towards it neighbours.” (Haddad: 1974. p.99).

Furthermore, to illustrate an example of his thesis, Haddad argues that the idea of the geographical extent of the Jewish state was derived from the Biblical story of the Kingdom of David. Haddad refers to Herzl’s diary in which Herzl mentions his meeting with Rev. Hechler, a Christian Zionist:

“Hechler unfolded his Palestine map in our (train) compartment and instructed me by the hour. The northern frontier is to be the mountains facing Cappadocia, the southern, the Suez Canal. Our slogan shall be: “the Palestine of David and Solomon.” (Haddad: 1974. p.108).

Further, according to Biblical texts (Ezra 9:1-2, Josh. 23: 11-13, Deut. 7: 1-6, Deut. 20: 16-18, Num. 33:52, 53, Deut. 6:10) there was a great fury and anger directed by God towards the original inhabitants of the “Holy Land” namely the Canaanites, Jebusites and Hittities. Also in the Bible, these original inhabitants, mostly referred to as inferior people, needed to be either totally exterminated or if this seemed not possible, boycotted. It is interesting that in the Bible there is no similar reference to the Assyrians who enslaved, captured and exiled the Jews from the “Holy Land”. Though there is no solid evidence one might still suggest that this might be a proof regarding how the ancient Biblical teachings were transferred to the present: The Europeans namely the Spanish, the Germans, the French and the Russians who enslaved, tormented, exiled and killed the Jews did not draw the Zionist wrath as much as the Arabs did, since the former is considered to be a superior race and the latter, inferior as the Bible suggests.

Making of Zionist Exceptionalism

For Merom (1999), who studied the relationship between the security of Israel and concept of Exceptionalism, there are three elements that gave rise to Zionist Exceptionalism which are; cultural, historical and strategical foundations. Firstly he deals with the cultural foundation and considers Judaism as part of the Jewish culture as well as of the secular elements. For him the origin of the cultural foundation of Zionist Exceptionalism is to be found in the Biblical notions that depict the Jewish people as the divinely “chosen” people. This Biblical teaching is accepted by the majority of Israelis since that is what they were taught in school. In his detailed study, Meron mentions that the idea that considers the Jews as the “chosen people” who are different from the others also includes that the Jews would become a “light unto the nations” or a beacon to the world. He refers to a speech of Ben-Gurion, one of the founders of Israel and the most important figure in Zionist history:

“You (the youth)… know that we were always a small people, always surrendered by big nations with who, we engaged in a struggle, political as well as spiritual; that we created things that they did not accept; that we were exceptional… Our supreme quality, our intellectual and moral advantage, which singles us out even today, as it did through the generations.” (Merom: 1999. p. 411).

As a matter of fact the stress on the uniqueness of the “Jewish nation” could be seen in the works of Moses Hess (1995). In his book entitled “Rome and Jerusalem” he emphasises that the Jews should avoid assimilation and reassert their uniqueness by reconstructing their national centre in Palestine. It seems that Hess makes a direct connection between the uniqueness of Jews and return to the ‘homeland’.

Moreover, according to Dadiani (1984), the Zionist ideology used the Judaic myths in a very broad manner in order to create the “exclusiveness” of the Jews, of their being ‘God’s chosen people’, and of their ‘special role’ in the history of mankind. Modernised, politicised dogmas of Judaism became very important parts of Zionism. Ethnocentric, chauvinist-racist thesis’ about the ‘exceptional nature’ of the Jews’ historical destiny, and about their alleged special nature and absolute uniqueness, and the world historical significance of ‘Jewish traditions and values’ of the messianic of Jewry made up the main arguments of the Zionist claim of their uniqueness. Moreover, these claims were embodied in the state of Israel as the ‘egalitarian state’, ‘the state fulfilling the dreams of the prophets’, ‘the state by the will of God’ and ‘the state of the world people’.

As to the historical foundations of Israeli Exceptionalism, Meron argues that it contains the memories of the previous calamities that the Jews suffered, such as the Diaspora and anti-Semitism. These events created the idea that the Jews are isolated and vulnerable to dangers that continuously come from the “Gentiles”, therefore, they are left alone. The Holocaust is used as the most recent and significant example of this feeling of abandonment. The Jews were left to the mercy of Hitler by the world and many of them were annihilated.

Further, the cultural and historical foundations of Zionist Exceptionalism helped the formation of its strategic foundations which were created after the establishment of Israel and based on three elements: Israeli perception of imbalance between the surrounding Arabs and Israelis, perception of Arab hostility towards Israel, and the aggressive Arab attitude towards Israel.

According to the strategic foundation, Israel has a great disadvantage against the Arabs who want a total destruction of the country and its people. This disadvantage, in terms of demographic, military and economic resources, is a significant geo-strategic vulnerability for Israel. Thus the foundations of the Israeli image of Exceptionalism gave rise to a belief that Israel is entangled in a conflict of unparalleled dimensions.

Garaudy studied the fundamental causes that lay behind the concept of Zionist Exceptionalism and concluded that it was a purely politically motivated belief:

The underlying reason for this falsification of history by the Zionists is political. What their aim is , by means of this “exceptionalism” to separate the State of Israel from the international community, and establish with the other countries not normal relations based on mutual understanding, common interest, and peaceful, creative purposes to be accomplished together, but exceptional relations of guilt…for everything to be permitted to the ‘exceptional victim’- including the turning to profit of that massacre of earlier times, so that today the “external aid” received from the United States amounts to more than $750 per head of the population of Israel-that is, twice the national income per head in African countries.” (1983, p. 64).

History shows us that, like many other ideologies, Zionism was not created in an overnight process. It took almost a century to develop the concept through the inputs of prominent leaders and sometimes along with cold blooded pragmatism. Moreover, during this creation process the forefathers of Zionism were strongly influenced by the developments and ideologies of 19th century Europe, and adeptly combined them with the traditional teachings of Judaism, and thus constructed the Zionist ideology.

It is almost impossible to deny that the long suffering of Jewish people, especially in the European Diaspora, was the foremost factor that helped to mobilise the Jews around the Zionist ideology. In fact as it has been mentioned in previous parts, in the case of Herzl, European anti-Semitism turned an assimilated Jew into the ‘father of Zionism.’

This paper is compiled of extracts from the author’s MA Thesis that was submitted to the Islamic Collage for Advanced Studies in 2007 and was prepared for Palestine International, 17 May 2007, London.

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Seyfeddin Kara

Seyfeddin Kara studied history at Uludag University (Turkey), and completed an MA in Islamic Studies and Middle East Politics at the Islamic Collage for Advanced Studies (UK). He is currently pursuing an MA in Islamic studies at Birkbeck Collage. He has been writing articles for several Turkish magazines since 1999. He is currently working as a researcher at Islamic Human Rights Commission.